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Authors: Kate Thompson

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BOOK: Midnight's Choice
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‘I've had about enough of you, Tess,' he said. ‘You mope around all day and treat your mother and myself as second-class citizens.'

Tess experienced a moment of anxiety, Her parents were so rarely critical that she hardly knew how to react. For a moment she was vulnerable, staring at the place where her magazine had been, struggling with shame. Then before she knew what was happening, the cold calm of her vampire mind came to her defence. Without looking up, she cut another forkful of beef.

‘Do I?' she said.

‘Yes, you do. You're doing it now.'

‘Am I?'

Her father thumped the table with his fist, and Tess giggled inwardly at the sight of her mother jumping again, this time spilling her glass of water into her lap. But if her father noticed, he didn't pay any attention. He glared at Tess and said, ‘I asked you a civil question and I expect a civil answer!'

‘You asked me a boring question about a boring subject because you have a boring need to make boring conversation over dinner.'

Tess's words were met by a stunned silence.

‘Boring dinner, I should have said,' she added, pushing a heap of mashed carrot and turnip towards the edge of her plate.

Her father stood up and pulled the plate away, knocking over his own glass of water in the process. Tess laughed as her mother leapt up and threw her already sodden napkin into the puddle. Then, slowly, she got to her feet and confronted her father. His face was stiff with fury.

‘Until further notice,' he said, ‘you are to stay in the house. I don't know who it is that you're meeting when you go out in the evenings, but whoever it is, they're clearly a bad influence on you.'

‘Maybe,' said Tess. ‘Or maybe I'm a bad influence on them. It all depends on which way you look at it, doesn't it?'

Her father stared at her, still unable to believe what he was hearing. Her mother was fussing with the highly-polished surface of the table, trying to pretend that nothing was happening while her life fell apart all around her.

‘Get up to bed, young lady.'

‘That's exactly where I was going.'

‘And don't come down again until you're in a more reasonable humour, you understand?'

‘Don't worry,' said Tess, heading towards the door. ‘I won't come down until I'm Daddy's little darling again. Is that what you want?'

Her father's hands were clenched into fists, and they were shaking.

‘Get out!' he yelled. ‘Get out of my sight!'

Taking her time, Tess went out of the room and closed the door quietly behind her. Then, as an afterthought, she came back in, picked up her magazine from the floor and walked out.

Tess lay on her back on the bed in the darkness and stared up at the ceiling. Her father had been a fool to challenge her; there was no way he could win. As soon as he was asleep at night she would be gone, out of the window and away across the city, feeding herself with the best that Dublin could offer. And in the morning she wouldn't go down to breakfast even if he asked her; even if he begged her. What could he do? He couldn't force her to get up and go to school. She would lie in bed and sleep away the day, refusing to eat or drink. By the time a week had passed he would be putty in her hands; her mother, too. She would be like Martin: ruling the roost, getting whatever she wanted whenever she wanted it. Tess smiled to herself in the darkness, then Switched and ran her tongue over her fangs. This was so easy, so perfect. She thought back over all her previous worries about what she was going to do when she reached fifteen. It all seemed so absurd now, and the answer so simple. It was good that she had met Martin and learned his secret. Perhaps she would meet him again tonight and hunt alongside him? But then again, perhaps not. They had no need of each other, after all, and the more she thought about hunting alone, the more she liked the idea.

Her mind stilled, alerted by soft footsteps on the stairs. Her mother, by the sound of it, coming to make her peace. Tess felt the familiar hunger and was surprised as the image of Martin's mother, pale and haggard, entered her mind. Of course! She smiled to herself, suddenly understanding the cause of the woman's mysterious anaemia.

The footsteps reached the top of the stairs and came on across the landing. Tess felt her mouth beginning to water at the prospect of an unexpected snack. Her mother was outside the door. The handle began to turn.

Not yet, though; not yet. Just in time, Tess got a grip on her vampire instincts. It was too early in the evening and too risky with her father in the house. Far better to wait for a more convenient occasion. Or an emergency, when other sources were hard to come by. Tonight, after all, she was eager for the hunt. There might well be times in the future when she felt more inclined to dine at home.

The light from the landing burst in and blinded Tess as the door opened. In the nick of time she Switched, keeping quite still as she did so, her face turned towards the wall.

‘Tess?'

Her mother came cautiously into the room as though she was afraid that her daughter would pounce on her. Tess turned towards her, and watched as she picked up a chair and brought it over to the bedside.

‘What's going on, Tess?' she said, sitting down in the chair and leaning forward with her elbows on her knees. The tone of concern in her voice almost disarmed Tess, but she recovered her guard just in time.

‘Nothing's going on,' she said. ‘Absolutely nothing.'

‘Then why were you so unpleasant to your father?'

Tess sighed in exasperation, as though she was talking to an idiot. ‘I wasn't rude to my father as a matter of fact,' she said. ‘For the first time in my life I was honest with my father. It's the same every evening. He comes home from work and he says, “How was school, Tess?” “Did anything interesting happen in school today?” “Anything happening at school these days?”'

‘But what's wrong with that?' said her mother.

‘What's wrong with that is that he couldn't care less what's happening at school. If I told him the place burnt down and I carried the piano out on my back he'd just say, “That's good. What's for dinner?”'

‘Oh, Tess. That's not fair.'

‘It is fair. The truth is always fair.'

‘And how do you come to be such an expert on the truth?' Her mother stood up and moved over to draw the curtains as she spoke.

‘Leave them,' said Tess.

‘I was just going to close them, that's all. Keep the heat in.'

‘I like them open. Leave them.'

Tess's mother walked back to the chair, but she didn't sit down. ‘Now, you listen to me, Tess,' she began.

‘I'm listening.'

‘There's a possibility that you might be right about your father ...'

‘I am.'

‘... Some of the time, that is. But as it happens, you were wrong today.'

‘Oh?'

‘Oh. Yes, oh. Your father has arranged to take the day off work tomorrow. He was about to ask you if it would be all right for you to take the day off school.'

Tess's eyes widened and she looked at her mother for the first time as she went on, ‘He was planning for us all to get up at crack of dawn and go over to the zoo.'

‘The zoo?'

‘Yes. The zoo. There's going to be an awful crowd there tomorrow.' She paused, looking into Tess's blank face. ‘Have you forgotten?'

‘Forgotten what?'

‘They're going to let the public in to see that bird they caught the other night.'

Tess sat up on the edge of the bed and stared into the middle distance. How could it have happened? How could she possibly have forgotten the phoenix? Not just for a few moments, but absolutely. She was quite certain that if her mother hadn't reminded her she would never have remembered it again. For the first time since she had assumed the vampire form, the horror of what she had done became clear to her. A desperate confusion flooded her mind as the phoenix memories returned and began to edge out the cold vampire complacency.

Her mother waited for a few moments, then said, ‘Now. I've spoken to your father and he's still willing to go if you promise to think about your behaviour this evening. He doesn't want an apology: just a nice day out tomorrow and a bit more consideration in future. What do you say?'

Tess looked up, her face quite changed now. She nodded. ‘I have to go,' she said.

‘You don't have to,' said her mother, ‘but it'd be a shame to miss the opportunity.'

Tess shook her head. ‘I have to go,' she said again. Her mother put an arm around her shoulders and gave her a quick squeeze, then crossed the room towards the door. Tess found her shoes and began to put them on.

‘And I will apologise,' she said.

As Tess watched TV with her parents that evening she had no awareness of what was going on beneath her. The city's rats, with Algernon somewhere among them, were digging, scratching, burrowing away, radiating outwards like the spokes of a wheel, still following their master's orders.

Most of the city underground had already been covered, since it had been dug up for foundations, and for sewerage, gas and electric systems. But directly beneath Tess's house, the rats were moving, breaking new ground as they pushed outwards into the unknown territory which lay beneath the park.

CHAPTER TWELVE

B
EFORE SEVEN O'CLOCK THE
following morning, Tess and her parents were standing outside the Dublin Zoo. Despite the early hour and the hard frost which had coated every leaf and blade of grass with silvery rime, there was already quite a queue of people there before them. The first ones in the line were wrapped in sleeping bags and blankets, and one or two gas stoves burned with yellow-blue flames beneath the street lights, brewing tea for cold campers.

Tess joined the line, pulling her pony tail out of the collar of her jacket and tightening the draw cords at her throat. Her father gave the pony tail an affectionate tug in an effort to break through the awkwardness which still lay between them. She gave him the best smile she could manage, but it wasn't great. Apart from anything else, Tess was desperately tired. She hadn't Switched at all the previous night; in her confusion she had decided to sleep on the problem in the hope that things would make more sense in the morning. But in the end she had found it impossible to sleep at all, and had spent the entire night in a terrible conflict with herself; swinging between her love for the phoenix and its ethereal existence and her desire for the bittersweet pleasures of the vampire. When her mother had come to call her at six-thirty, she had felt an enormous sense of relief, but it hadn't lasted long. Already the vampire side of her mind had begun to eat into her resolve to visit the phoenix. What was the point, after all? Why should she stand for hours in the freezing cold just for the sake of getting a glimpse of a namby-pamby bird that she had already seen?

The lights came on in the zoo, but there was still no sign of any activity at the gates. Tess shuddered as the frost bit deep into her tired bones. In an effort to close the contradictory voices out of her mind, she began to look around at the crowd. There were all kinds of people there, from new age ‘crusties' with long-haired children to pin-striped businessmen who blew on their hands and stamped their polished brogues against the cold tarmac. The majority, though, seemed to be the type of people that Tess imagined would shoot birds rather than watch them; they wore waxed jackets or faded green anoraks with jeans and walking boots or green Wellingtons. The most noticeable thing about them was that they didn't seem to feel the cold as much as everyone else, but stood around in small groups chatting to each other as though they were quite accustomed to being out in the frost before dawn.

Tess examined the lines of parked cars and tried to match the people to their transport. There were a couple of brightly-coloured vans, a dormobile with dim lights on inside, several saloon cars with recent registration plates, a Morris Minor and four Land Rovers. As Tess watched, another one arrived, its diesel engine growling sweetly as it slowed and pulled into a space at the head of the line.

‘I suppose it's too early to start on the breakfast?' said Tess's father.

‘Of course it is,' said her mother. ‘We've got three hours to wait before the gates open.'

‘What do you think, Tess?' said her father, with a conspiratorial nudge of his elbow.

‘I don't mind,' she said. She was still watching the Land Rover, expecting it to be loaded to the gills with Labrador dogs and men in deer-stalker hats.

‘Just a cup of coffee?' said her father, in a wheedling voice.

The back door of the Land Rover opened and a huddle of children spilled out, stretching and yawning, their breath rising in misty clouds around them. The driver's door slammed and a man in a cloth cap walked around the bonnet, then went back to his own side to turn out the headlights.

Tess's mother conceded. ‘All right. Just a small cup, though.'

The passenger door opened and swung back and forth on its hinges as a small figure manoeuvred around with considerable difficulty, until she was sitting sideways on the seat. The man in the cloth cap hurried round to help, and a moment later the elderly woman descended, stiffly but safely, on to the road.

Tess recognised her immediately. It was Lizzie, the eccentric old woman who had once been a Switcher herself, and had sent Tess and Kevin to the Arctic to do battle with the krools. Without thinking, Tess raced away from her parents and across the road, narrowly avoiding a minibus that was crawling along, looking for a space to park. Lizzie dropped her walking stick in surprise as Tess appeared at her side and flung her arms around her.

‘Careful, girl! Careful of my old bones!' Lizzie suffered Tess's embrace for a moment or two, then extricated herself. ‘This cold has me rusted up so I can hardly move!'

BOOK: Midnight's Choice
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